Menu Close

Law professors to DOJ: Drop Assange prosecution—Freedom of the Press Foundation, Feb. 14, 2024


Over 35 law professors told the Department of Justice in a letter today that the Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange “pose an existential threat to the First Amendment.”

An appellate hearing on the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition from Britain to the United States is scheduled to be held at the High Court in London on Feb. 20-21.

The professors write that although their “personal views on Assange and WikiLeaks vary,” they are nonetheless “united in our concern about the constitutional implications of prosecuting Assange.” Those implications, they explain, “could extend beyond the Espionage Act and beyond national security journalism [to] enable prosecution of routine newsgathering under any number of ambiguous laws and untested legal theories.”

One of the signers is James Goodale, the former vice president and general counsel for The New York Times and an adjunct professor at Fordham School of Law. He believes that, if Assange is convicted, similar prosecutions seeking to criminalize investigative reporting are inevitable.

“Based on my experience, which includes serving as The New York Times’ general counsel when the Nixon administration tried to indict a journalist under the Espionage Act for publishing the Pentagon Papers, I am confident that a successful prosecution of Julian Assange would lead to similar charges against journalists from newspapers like the Times when they uncover secrets that embarrass officials. This would be absolutely disastrous for press freedom in the United States,” said Goodale.

The letter follows correspondence expressing similar concerns about the consequences of prosecuting Assange for press freedom from leading media publishers, civil liberties organizations, and members of Congress. In addition to the law professors who signed the letter, numerous legal scholars have independently expressed their concerns about the repercussions of prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act for the First Amendment.

As the letter notes, the Obama administration understood these concerns, and refrained from charging Assange under the Espionage Act because it reportedly recognized the “New York Times problem”: that any legal theory it could employ against Assange could be used against journalists from the Times and other newspapers.

But the Trump administration reversed course and the Biden administration has insisted on continuing the prosecution, even as Trump himself proclaims his intention to lock up journalists — specifically those who publish leaked documents — if he gets another presidential term.

Seth Stern, the director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, which helped organize the letter, said, “Scholars, lawyers, media publishers and activists all agree that the prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act is sure to lead to prosecutions of journalists for doing their jobs. It seems the only people who disagree are the DOJ. It’s time for them to finally drop this dangerous prosecution. Whether you love or hate Julian Assange, if he comes first, a journalist you do like may come next.”

You can read the letter here.